There’s a moment in Silence, Martin Scorsese’s powerful film about persecution of Christians in 17th century, where the main character, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), whispers, “Am I just praying to silence?” Scorsese’s answer to that question, at the heart of this epic film, may surprise many, especially those that see him as a director who celebrates excess. And it’s an answer that will challenge moviegoers, the faithful and non-believers alike.
The film begins as two excitable Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and Garupe (Adam Driver), convince their superior (Ciaran Hinds) to allow them to continue their mission to Japan to find their former teacher, Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has been rumored to have become an apostate. When the two arrive in Japan, they quickly realize the dangers they’ve been warned about are very real, as the pair secretly minister to Japanese Christians in hiding that are desperate to be spiritually fed.
The perils, and the tension in the movie, increase all the more once Rodrigues and Garupe witness and suffer persecution themselves at the hand of the “Insquisitor” (Issey Ogata), whose methods are diabolical and whose grand approach is ingenious. It’s that plan that causes Rodrigues to question the goodness of God and even his existence, as a battle of wills ensues in the middle and last acts of the film, with common and kind Japanese Christians in between as the victims.
Explaining Silence as an historical epic denies the film and its source material of its complexity. The groups represented in the movie are many, and their viewpoints just as expansive. Each makes good common sense in how they view the world, and at the same time, each does not. The complications are furthered, however, as every significant character is complex him and herself, not easily explained, and motivated and moved as any human is—by a great many things, and apt to change.
In this way, and indeed throughout the film, Scorsese shows his love of Shūsaku Endō’s classic novel and how meaningful this passion project is to him. It walks a line that some may find blasphemous, and many more will find theologically unsound, but the movie also emphasizes the existence of God, an answer regarding his silence (answered more strongly than Endō did), and embraces the very heart of a gracious God in a film that for two plus hours wonders where his grace has gone.
If the movie sounds like a heavy one theologically, it is. Silence is difficult to watch, not only because it forces us all to ask very heavy questions that aren’t easily answered with cliches or whatever else we’ve relied on all our lives, but also because the movie does so by presenting a world too harsh for us to think about, and people too kind to suffer the way they do.
The heaviness of the material, the way it challenges us to consider the biggest questions in life, is a challenging one to bring to screen. Though the film is lengthy, the questions and repercussions of choices on-screen, and then translated to our lives, require more time and more thought than can be given. A second or third viewing is required (the film is beautifully shot and worthy of repeated viewings), or even better, a slower reading through Endō’s book. Reading a chapter at a time allows the disturbing aspects of the story to sink in and causes us to think analytically; here, there’s too much that happens in two and a half hours, perhaps, for us to come to any real conclusions, rather than simply accept or reject Scorcese’s answer.
And that answer, though it needs to be explored in its subtleties, is so very significant. And though Scorsese brings his own thoughts and modern application to it, I believe the answer is much the same as the one Endō wanted to tell us. In the silence, there is an answer. God is not silent; he is misunderstood, misheard, misinterpreted, but ultimately, he is not silent to our cries, to our suffering, to our pain. He is roaring in love and devotion to a people too clumsy, prideful, and ignorant, at times, to hear him. That message means everything—it does now as it did then to murdered farmers, apostatizing priests, and persecuting officials. The question, though, turns to us—how do we respond to the silence and to what it means? Scorcese’s film charges us to answer, and with all the pitch-perfect pieces in “Silence,” it’s that which makes it a great movie, and one of utmost importance.
Editor’s Note: We’re delighted that TWWK/Charles contributed this review. But don’t get too excited; our founder’s not back for good. This is only a guest contribution. Want more? I suggest you find Charles’s writing on Geekdom House or catch up with him on Tumblr and Twitter.